Work out smart, monitor your heart

Knowing target rate can help you find your best pace and intensity

August 12, 2005|By Julie Deardorff | By Julie Deardorff,Chicago Tribune

The fascination with heart-rate monitors reached new heights after the Outdoor Life Network showed the pulse of some riders in the Tour de France in July.

It's like having a cockpit view of an auto racer's instrument panel.

Perennial champ Lance Armstrong didn't volunteer his real-time data; he didn't want competitors to know when he was truly sweating. But his heart-rate numbers, which provide a rare glimpse into his freakishly efficient body, are legendary and telling.

When Armstrong is relaxing off the bike, his resting heart rate, or pulse, has been measured at just 32 beats per minute, less than half that of the average man. When he's sprinting up a steep mountain, it might spike to around 200 beats per minute. And during a four- to six-hour endurance ride, Armstrong's ticker is thumping as low as 124 beats per minute.

This type of technical information and other data gleaned from digital heart-rate monitors can help professionals and weekend warriors find the most beneficial pace and workout intensity. Like a personal trainer, a heart-rate monitor can urge you to push past a comfort level or caution you to slow down.

"I was surprised when I first put one on," said ultrarunner and endurance athlete Nancy Burrows, 38. "Even though we all think we know how hard we're working, I was always at the same level. It was never hard enough or easy enough. A heart-rate monitor gives objective feedback."

Though partly determined by heredity, resting heart rates are excellent indicators of health: The lower they are, the better. But they aren't foolproof. It's possible to be horribly unfit and have a heart rate in the low 50s.

But generally, heart rates decrease with constant exercise and increase when the body is fatigued or overtrained. If your resting heart rate is 10 beats higher than usual, that's a sign you're tired or haven't recovered from yesterday's workout. Another intense exercise session won't provide much benefit, but it could lead to injury.

"Figuring out the resting heartbeat is the first piece of homework I give my clients," said Chicago personal trainer Michael Sena. And "99.9 percent of the people don't know it."

The resting heart rate is fairly easy to determine. Before getting out of bed or drinking caffeine in the morning, count your pulse for 10 seconds. Then multiply by six. Do this for two or three days in a row.

Or strap on a heart-rate monitor, which consists of a wristwatch and a transmitter that is strapped across the chest. The transmitter picks up the electrical activity of the heart and wirelessly sends the signals to the wristwatch.

Though heart-rate monitors can range from $60 to more than $400, Sena recommends starting with a basic model for about $100. Many models come with software that can be downloaded into a computer. And most modern cardio equipment in gyms is heart-rate compatible, meaning that if you wear the chest strap, your heart rate will appear on the display console.

For a fitness novice whose goal is weight loss, Sena might have him walk at 60 percent to 70 percent of his maximum heart rate. For someone who wants to be a better athlete and is active three or four days a week, he might increase the intensity during one of the workouts.

"A heart-rate monitor enables you to train at consistent effort, rather than consistent pace," said Chicago runner Sarah Rice, 32, who uses the Timex Bodylink System. She has found that heat, wind, hills, mood, menstrual cycle, stress and sleep can affect her workouts. "Using a heart-rate monitor accounts for these various factors all at once and enables you to train at the best level you can on any given day, in any conditions," said Rice, a professor of cell biology at Northwestern University.

Monitors are also handy during races. Rice ran a half-marathon on a hot, humid June morning. Her heart-rate monitor showed that she had reached her target at a much slower pace than usual. Instead of speeding up, "I maintained the slow pace and placed much better in the race than I would have otherwise," she said.

Burrows had a similar experience during the Gobi March in China, a grueling 158-mile stage race held at 6,000 feet in 95-degree temperatures. Her heart rate was all over the map, a signal that she needed to slow down.

Instead, she decided to ignore it and wound up getting sick on the first day of the race. Later, when she downloaded her heart-rate numbers from that day, she could see exactly when she should have backed off. "I should have trusted it," said Burrows, who has since dedicated herself to her heart-rate monitor.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

In the zone

How to calculate your ideal workout zone:

You don't need an advanced degree in mathematics to figure out your target heart-rate zone, or the middle ground between loafing and overdoing it. But it helps.

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